IELTS Reading Distractors

The IELTS reading exam tests a candidate’s reading comprehension skills. During the reading test, students must answer 40 questions based on different reading passages. There are 3 sections and each section is allocated a time of 20 minutes.

The test is not as straight forward and simple as the reading comprehension passages you might have come across at school. In this article, we will take a look at one of the toughest aspects of the IELTS reading test,  i.e. reading distractors.

Here's a detailed list of what you can expect to come across in this article:

What Are Distractors?

To put it simply a distractor is anything that looks like the correct answer but is actually incorrect. They appear in different forms throughout the reading test. The aim of this article is to teach you how to identify and avoid these distractors/tricks.

Here are some common forms of distractors that you can come across in the reading test:

  • When you locate the correct section in the reading text, there might appear to be two or three plausible correct answers.
  • Irrelevant options in a multiple-choice question that also seem to be correct
  • Phrases which include the keywords in a question but do not lead to the correct answer
  • Phrases in the passage that are only partially correct or only partially match a question due to a difference in qualifying words such as "some" or "few".

For example, 'Some of the students passed the exam’  has a different meaning to ‘All of the students passed the exam'

Why Do Examiners Add Distractors To The Reading Test?

Distractors are included to test, trick, mislead and confuse the candidate. This sounds quite harsh, but there is a valid reason for this.

The IELTS Examiners know that students are trying to answer everything as quickly as possible, so they use distractors to check if candidates have actually understood the passage, or whether they are using just “tricks” (like just spotting keywords) to bypass understanding the text.

Most reading test candidates read without looking at the context of a whole sentence – they merely search for keywords. If candidates have not read/understood the text properly, then they will be influenced by distractors and as a result choose the wrong answers.


How To Recognize Distractors

Now that you have a better idea about what a reading distractor is, we can move on to the next step: mastering the skill of recognizing and avoiding reading distractors. Distractors can be found in all reading questions, but we will only take look at those question types in which distractors are most commonly found. These include:

  • Multiple Choice Questions
  • True, False, Not Given Questions
  • Matching Headings
  • Matching Sentence Endings


1. Multiple Choice Questions

These are questions in which you are asked to choose the correct option for statement endings or answers to questions based on the text.

There are different types of multiple-choice questions, namely:

  • Questions with only one correct option out of four options.
  • Questions where it is required to choose more than one option from a number of options greater than four.

There are different types of options as well, namely:

  • Irrelevant options which might not even be mentioned in the text.
  • An option which gives the opposite information of the actual answer.
  • An option which is mentioned in the text but is not relevant to the question.
  • An option which is the correct answer.

The focus of Multiple Choice Questions can vary. They might be specific to a small part of the text or deal with the entire text. The examiner usually adds incorrect options that are designed to trick or confuse students. These options are similarly worded to the statements in the text but they might not be related to that particular question. 

The most common forms of distractors in multiple choice questions are:

  • Similar Questions
  • Irrelevant Options
  • Referencing

a. Similar Keywords

Some options have similar or exactly the same keywords as in the passage but are not relevant to that question. All the possible answers for a given question will have at least one synonym or keyword that matches the given text. This makes them seem more plausible as an answer.

Let’s look at the following practice example:

Choose the correct letter, A, B, C or D.


Write the correct letter in boxes 8–13 on your answer sheet.


Q. What did researchers identify as the ideal time to wake up in the morning?


  • 6:04
  • 7:04
  • 7:22
  • 7:30

The words within this question and the options indicate that we have to look for a specific time. We can use these keyword researchers, morning and time to locate the specific time we need.

According to the paragraph, the ideal time recommended by researchers is 7:22 am.

It's important to take note of the fact that 6:04 am and 7 am are mentioned first. However, these times have not been identified by researchers as the best time to wake up. They are merely distracters which are also found nearby paraphrased key words such as rouses and rising at, which also means to wake up. This clearly shows how important it is to read the relevant area of the paragraph carefully before answering instead of just matching keywords.

b. Irrelevant Options

Sometimes there appear to be options, which at first seem to match with the correct answer, but are not actually relevant to that particular question. In order to avoid such options. It is important to read the options fully before assuming that you have the correct answer. You can also try to rephrase the options in your own words to see if you understand the actual difference in meanings.

c. Referencing

Students also fail to follow arguments in a reading text because they wrongly assume that answers can be found within a single sentence in the text. However, sometimes an answer can be spread over an entire paragraph. For this reason, following an argument and understanding referencing becomes an important skill.

To avoid repetition, writers often replace words with other words like pronouns or determiners. If you are not familiar with the use of these, it might be difficult to follow exactly who or what is being referenced in a particular paragraph. IELTS candidates need to remember that sometimes the keyword paraphrase they are searching for might be referenced using a pronoun or determiner instead of a noun or name.

Let’s illustrate this with a simple example. Mary just got her exam results. She passed with flying colors.  In this instance 'she' refers to Mary’

Let's take a look at a more difficult example:

33.  According to the sixth paragraph, what was extraordinary about the Lapita?


  1. They sailed beyond the point where land was visible.
  2. Their cultural heritage discouraged the expression of fear.
  3. They were able to build canoes that withstood ocean voyages.
  4. Their navigational skills were passed on from one generation to the next.

The sixth paragraph is all about a sea faring tribe called the Lapita.

All we can say for certain is that the Lapita had canoes that were capable of ocean voyages and they had the ability to sail them,’ says Geoff Irwin, a professor of archeology at the University of Auckland. Those sailing skills, he says, were developed and passed down over thousands of years by earlier mariners who worked their way through the archipelagoes of the western Pacific, making short crossings to nearby islands. The real adventure didn’t begin, however, until their Lapita descendants sailed out of sight of land, with empty horizons on every side. This must have been difficult for them as landing on the moon is for us today. Certainly, it distinguished them from their ancestors, but what gave them the courage to launch out on such risky voyages?

Let’s take a look at Options C and D in particular:

C. They were able to build canoes that withstood ocean voyages.

D. Their navigational skills were passed on from one generation to the next.

The paraphrases of these options are both found within the paragraph.

(C) All we can say for certain is that the Lapita had canoes that were capable of ocean voyages and they had the ability to sail them,’ says Geoff Irwin,

(D) Those sailing skills, he says, were developed and passed down over thousands of years

We are looking for a fact about the Lapita that is extraordinary, and although options C and D are mentioned in the text, nothing is mentioned as to whether or not these facts are extraordinary.

These are distractors meant to trick candidates who are in a hurry and merely matching keywords from the options with understanding the context surrounding the statement. Option B is not mentioned at all.

The phrase at the end of the paragraph does seem to mention something extraordinary.

Certainly, it distinguished them from their ancestors, but what gave them the courage to launch out on such risky voyages?

The word distinguished is a paraphrase of the word extraordinary.

However, we do not know what the “it” that was extraordinary actually is. This is an example which illustrates the importance of understanding referencing within a text. To find out we need to read a few sentences above.

Now we understand that it was extraordinary of them to go beyond points where land was visible which matches perfectly with Option A.

2. True/False/Not Given

This is a question type which asks you to decide if certain statements/facts agree with the text or not (true/ false) or if they are altogether not mentioned in the text at all (not given).

Before I explain further, we first need to clarify what “true, false and not given” actually mean in terms of this question type.

  • True - means that the statement is a fact that is clearly mentioned in the passage even if it is paraphrased.
  • False - means that the opposite of the statement is present in the passage.
  • Not Given - a statement can be considered as “not given” only when both the statement and its opposite is not mentioned in the text.

This option can be particularly tricky as sometimes only part of the statement is mentioned along with some key differences in wording. For example, all vs. some or most vs. a few

For this question, it is important to avoid using your own personal opinions to answer. In some instances, you may know of something to be true but if it is not mentioned in the text you have to answer it is not given.


3. Yes/No/Not Given

This question is very similar to true/ false / not given. True/ false / not given always ask for whether or not certain statements agree with the information given in the paragraph. Yes/No/ Not Given questions ask whether or not certain statements agree with the writer’s views and opinions. If a particular view is expressed in the passage, then we answer Yes and if not, then we answer No. Not Given refers to information/ opinions that may have only been partially mentioned or not mentioned at all.

All options should be used, so if you have not used an option you have probably made a mistake.

The most common forms True/False/Not Given  and Yes/No/Not Given distractors are:

  • Limiting Word
  • Unfamiliar Wording and Paraphrases
  • Not Given Statements
  • Changes in Wording
  • Fact vs Opinion

a. Limiting words

In order for a statement to qualify as true the entire statement must match the question statement. In some cases, only part of the statement is mentioned along with some key differences in wording. For example. all vs. some or most vs. a few

Let’s take a look at this example:

Q. Most animals are active during the daytime.

The focus is on most of the animals and not just some of them.

Here’s how this statement matched to the text:

Numerous creatures are largely diurnal – that is, they like to come out during the hours of sunlight.

Numerous, meaning many, does not mean the same thing as the word “most” this clear difference in the meaning of just one word means that the question statement does not qualify as true. The majority of animals are not active during the daytime, therefore the answer is FALSE

b. Unfamiliar Wording and Paraphrases

Sometimes examiners use difficult or unfamiliar wording in either the question or paraphrase to check if a particular word is within the candidate’s vocabulary range. This also checks to see if the student is able to identify the paraphrases within the passage.

Let’s look at this example:

To answer correctly, you have to know that the following words from the question statement and the paragraph are paraphrases of each other.

  • make it difficult = limit our ability.
  • solve = address
  • problems = issues

The individual words might not mean exactly the same thing. We need to look for the meanings as a whole instead of looking at individual words. Therefore the answer is TRUE

c. Not Given Statements

Another type of distractor in True/False/Not Given questions are statements that seem to obviously true but never actually appear in the passage. We have to be very careful not to answer questions based solely on our personal opinions or knowledge. These types of statements are usually those Not Given statements that might even include a number of keyword phrases and synonyms, but the complete statement never actually appears in the text.

Let’s look at the following examples to illustrate this point:

The statement ‘Play helps children to develop their artistic talents.’ seems like an intuitive fact since playtime is a creative activity. However, it is never actually mentioned in this particular passage.

Most of us know that this information mentioned in the question is true, since studying animals in the wild involves stressful procedures like capturing them using tranquilizer darts etc. However this is not mentioned in the text even though a great many keywords from the question matched to the paragraph above. The answer is NOT GIVEN.

d. Changes in Wording

Small changes in wording can also make a significant impact on your answer. Consider the following example:

 Q. Thirty percent of deaths in the United States are caused by smoking-related diseases.

Smoking, it is believed, is responsible for 30 percent of all deaths from cancer and clearly represents the most important preventable cause of cancer in countries like the United States today.

The article says that smoking causes 30 percent of all deaths from cancer. However, the question statement says smoking causes thirty percent of deaths in general. Therefore the statement does not match the text and is false despite having very similar keywords and ideas to the passage.

e. Fact vs Opinion

Facts are things that are always true or cannot be disproved but opinions are just what people think. Be careful of words that relate to/imply an opinion like "claim, believe etc.” as such words infer that such sentences are opinions and not a fact (or true). For example, “He claims to be a doctor” is different to “He is a doctor.”

Let’s look at the following statement.

Q. Chilies can be part of a bird’s diet

Only mammals feel the burning effects; birds feel nothing. As birds are a better method of distributing the seeds, which pass intact through their guts

The statement Chilies can be part of a bird’s dietis true, as this section in the reading passage clearly tells us birds feel nothing (when they eat them) and they distribute them around when it leaves their body. So chilies can be eaten by birds and they can be a part of a bird’s diet. Hence the statement is True

However if the statement was phrased as:

Q. Chilies are an important part of a bird’s diet

The answer, in this case would be FALSE. The passage never states that it is a fact that chilies are always a part of a bird’s diet, only that it is possible for it to be so.


4. Matching Sentence Endings

This a question type in which we are given incomplete sentences along with options for suitable endings. Both the sentence beginning and ending options are paraphrased, meaning that they will not appear in exactly the same way in the text.

In this question there are usually more options than sentences and these incorrect options are meant simply to confuse students. These options are often worded very similarly to the text with a few minor differences. The question follows the same order as the passage and therefore the hardest part is locating the first answer. When you do that match an ending to a sentence beginning, make sure that the resulting sentence should be grammatically correct.

The Common Matching Sentence Endings distractors include:

  • There are usually more options than sentences and these incorrect options are meant simply to confuse you. They are often worded very similarly to the text with a few minor differences.
  • The resulting sentence should be grammatically correct. Examiners often add endings that fit well in a grammatical sense but are actually incorrect.

Let's take a look at the following example:

Complete each sentence with the correct ending, A-G, below.
Write the correct letter, A-G. in boxes 19-22 on your answer sheet


19. According to Dingle, migratory routes are likely to
20. To prepare for migration, animals are likely to
21. During migration, animals are unlikely to
22. Arctic terns illustrate migrating animals’ ability to

A. be discouraged by difficulties.
B. travel on open land where they can look out for predators.
C. eat more than they need for immediate purposes.
D. be repeated daily.
E. ignore distractions.
F. be governed by the availability of water.
G. follow a straight line.

Let’s consider Q 19. According to Dingle, migratory routes are likely to.

A migratory route is a non-living thing which immediately eliminates options like Option A: be discouraged by difficulties or Option C: eat more than they need for immediate purposes.

If we consider a completely grammatical approach, we see that options D, F and G would all fit in such a way as to be a grammatically correct sentence.

Let's take a closer look at the keywords in Q19

Just by examining the key words, we get an idea that we have to search for the opinion of a person called Dingle. We have to search for a paragraph that mentions both Dingle and migratory routes.

Let us look at how our question key words matched the paraphrase in the text:

The words “tend to” is a paraphrase of “likely to”. According to the paragraph, migration routes tend to be linear. The next step is to search for similar paraphrase of the word linear in the endings options. The answer is G. follow a straight line. (meaning linear).

It is important to note that there were other distractors that also included keywords from the passage but did not relate to the question statement.

For Example:

5. Matching Headings

The IELTS reading Matching headings question requires choosing headings that match the gist of the given paragraphs. (basically each heading summarizes a paragraph within the text). Before you actually look at the question you should first skim through the text to get the general understanding of the text. Think carefully about what the most important idea in the paragraph is. How would you summarize this entire paragraph using just one line?

  • Is it in the main idea in the first line?
  • Is it somewhere in the middle?
  • Does the whole paragraph discuss one main point?

Once this is done, you can look at the headings. The headings always match the main ideas of a paragraph, but they are paraphrased meaning that they may not contain the same words as the passage.

This question is often labelled as one of the toughest questions in the IELTS reading exam because test takers have to be able to find the main idea of the paragraph. There are usually more headings than actual paragraphs which means that sometimes more than one heading seems to match a paragraph. This is because Some of the headings are distracters, having a similar meaning to the actual answer. These distractor headings might even be an actual part of a paragraph but are not the main idea of that paragraph. They could represent supporting ideas or examples.

Some common examples of Matching Headings Distractors are:

  • Headings are supporting ideas and not main ideas. 
  •  Headings are too general and don’t match the specific main idea of a paragraph.
  • Headings that just paraphrase or match the first line of a paragraph. (which do not always match the main idea of a paragraph

Practice Matching Headings Question:

Reading Passage 2 has seven paragraphs, A-G.


Choose the correct heading for each paragraph from the list of headings below.


Write the correct number, i-ix, in boxes 1-7 on your answer sheet


List of Headings:


   i. Predicting climatic changes


   ii. The relevance of the Little Ice Age today


   iii. How cities contribute to climate change


   iv. Human impact on the climate



   v. How past climatic conditions can be determined


   vi. A growing need for weather records


   vii. A study covering a thousand years


   viii. People have always responded to climate change


   ix. Enough food at last

Before we solve the above question we need to find the main idea of each paragraph in the passage that relates to this question. Once we have done so, we can then match our main ideas to the options/headings.


a. How To Find The Main Idea Of A Paragraph

Start off by reading the title and sub-heading, if there is one. The heading of a passage gives us our first connection to the passage. We then to go through the first paragraph without reading the text in detail. The first paragraph of any reading passage connects us to the rest of the passage and gives us a connection to the writer and their views, so we need to spend a bit more time on this paragraph than we do the others.

The next step involves locating the topic sentences within each paragraph. Topic sentences are those sentences which give us the main idea of the main paragraph. You can usually find them at the beginning of a paragraph (the first two sentences). To skim each paragraph effectively, I recommend that you obtain the main idea of a paragraph from the topic sentence. Briefly go through the rest of the paragraph and look for words or phrases that confirm your main idea. You should also keep an eye out for unique words, like names, numbers and terminology that might be useful later when you are answering questions. Do not read every word.

The last step is to go through the last paragraph in a similar manner to the first paragraph. This paragraph will mention the dominant opinion of the passage. 

Let's use the above mentioned strategies to find the main idea of the following paragraph:

Paragraph D definitely talks about climate, which isn’t really helpful since the entire passage is about climate change. If we use climate change as a reference to match with headings, we would match this paragraph with multiple headings. We have to be more specific and choose a heading that completely represents the main idea of this paragraph.

The paragraph talks mainly about climate changes through many centuries (in the past). We need to search for headings that deal with the past. There are only two headings which match this criteria.

v.   How past climatic conditions can be determined

vii.  A study covering a thousand years

Upon closer examination of the paragraph, we see that Paragraph D does talk in great lengths about the past, but it does not mention how these past climatic conditions were determined.

The matching heading must be vii A study covering a thousand years.

Let's take a look at another paragraph from the same reading passage:

This paragraph is quite longer than the previous one and it seems to continue the theme from Paragraph D, i.e. Climate change through the centuriesTowards the middle of the paragraph a shift in the topic of discussion changes. Developments in agriculture and human adaptions to the climatic changes that resulted in increased food production, are discussed with numerous examples. The main idea is best summarized using the last line of the paragraph rather than the first.

If we searched on the basis of key words only and the idea that the main idea is usually found in the first few lines of a paragraph we would wrongly assume that the correct heading would be heading ii since it is the only heading that includes the keyword “Little Ice Age”.

Since the paragraph once again discusses the past, one might assume that the Heading v: How past climatic conditions can be determined could be considered as a match but again nothing about this paragraph discusses determining what past climatic conditions were like.

Paragraph E focuses on how humans adapted to climate change and improved their agricultural practices resulting protection against famine, which matches best with Heading ix. Enough food at last.

This example once again emphasizes the point that we should not assume that the main idea of a paragraph will always be found at the beginning of a paragraph.

Let's take a look at another example:

Reading Passage 3 has seven paragraphs, A-G.


Choose the correct heading for each paragraph from the list of headings below.


Write the correct number, i-ix, in boxes 1-7 on your answer sheet


List of Headings:



   i. Predicting climatic changes


   ii. The relevance of the Little Ice Age today


   iii. How cities contribute to climate change


   iv. Human impact on the climate



   v. How past climatic conditions can be determined


   vi. A growing need for weather records


   vii. A study covering a thousand years


   viii. People have always responded to climate change


   ix. Enough food at last

The above paragraph talks at length about two substances that were vital for the industrial revolution, this is the main idea for the paragraph. The paragraph also mentions that these beverages aided in the expansion of the population at the time. If we base our choices on keywords alone, two distinct choices stand out:

i. The search for the reasons for an increase in population.

vii. Two keys to Britain’s industrial revolution.

However, take note that Heading i is not the main idea for this particular paragraph. The increase or “flourish” in the population is a supporting point which adds to the main idea of demonstrating how Tea and Beer were vital factors for the industrial revolution.

The paragraph also does not mention anywhere that there was some need to search for or discover the reasons behind the population increase/growth. It does go into detail about two important factors that were necessary for the industrial revolution to occur i.e. tea and beer. The answer is therefore, Heading vii.

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